If you are anything like me, you’ve been transfixed by the Egyptian revolution. If you value political freedom, human dignity and non-violent resistance as means to achieve both, than this was an event impossible not to love. We all know the future is uncertain–if a legitimate democracy will takes Mubarak’s place, and if that democracy will mesh with its former allies, America and Israel among them–but the short history of the revolution itself is what both conservatives and liberals alike in the U.S. have been hoping for for years: a democratic revolution with broad popular support.
But here’s what you may have missed: the Jewish influence on the revolution. In the past couple of days, the name of the non-violent theorist Gene Sharp has continued to pop up. An 81-year-old retired professor, Sharp’s writings on non-violence have not only been read by the key leaders of the Egyptian revolution, but by ones who kicked off similar protests in the former Soviet states, Burma, Iran, Venezuela and many other current dictatorships. His short 90-page manual, "From Dictatorships to Democracy," has shown up in the hands of thousands of protesters, and it includes practical non-violence techniques from how to stage public funeral, to adopting a color as a movement’s theme.
Right now you’re probably thinking that Sharp is Jewish. That’s what I assumed, but he’s not. According to this Wall Street Journal profile from 2008–when Sharp’s name popped up again, after Ahmadinejad and Hugo Chavez cited him, not in praise–his father was an itinerant Protestant preacher. But the non-violent center he’s been running for almost 30 years, the Albert Einstein Institute, was funded for more than two decades by Peter Ackerman, who was Jewish. A former student of Sharp when he taught at Harvard, Ackerman made millions working with the junk-bond financier Michael Milken. But he remained loyal to his old professor, and when Sharp asked for funding for a non-violent center, Ackerman backed him.
The story doesn’t exactly end well, however. Ackerman, the Journal reports, had a falling out with Sharp over the direction of the institute, where Sharp wanted to keep it small, and Ackerman wanted to expand. In 2004, Ackerman stopped funding it, leaving Sharp with a $150,000 annual budget. But Ackerman went on to fund a newer activist center based in Washington, D.C., called the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict. Since 2002, it’s also helped give advice and raise awareness about non-violent resistance to anti-democratic regimes.
Sharp has other Jewish connections too. I found an interview Sharp gave to The Progressive in 2009, where he cites some of his influences. Of course there are the non-violent titans–Ghandi and Martin Luther King–but there is also the time his spent in Norway in the 1950s. While he was there, he interviewed dozens of locals about what they did under the Nazi-allied regime during the war years. "What did the Norwegians do during the Nazi occupation? How did they successfully resist the Norwegian fascist regime of Vidkun Quisling during the Nazi occupation?" Sharp told The Progessive.
"I interviewed several people on that subject," he went on, "and I wrote that up and it became a booklet. [The booklet details how Norwegian teachers braved intimidation and incarceration to band together and resist Quisling’s indoctrination program for the schools.] I also interviewed several people on what was done to save the Jews of Norway. And there were other successful anti-Nazi movements, such as German women married to Jewish men, who demonstrated at Rosenstrasse."
I am sure there are other Jewish ideas that have found there way into Egypt’s marvelous revolution, however circuitously. But I don’t want to overclaim their significance; it is only nice to hear they exist. This event was, after all, by and for Egyptians, and there is nothing wrong with simply praising that.